Sunday at the Park

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It’s autumn: the air is cool, your nose is cold, your hands are stuffed in your pockets, or maybe you carry a cardboard coffee cup to keep them warm. You wear thicker socks and insist your children add a layer over their comfortable, worn-in t-shirts. Leaves crunch underfoot. A campfire burns nearby, crackling with sticks and small pieces of wood, warming those who stand around it. On one side, children are pounding wood with hammers, or sawing it into pieces, then placing smaller chunks on the fire. You hear a train whistle in the distance and kids laughing as they scamper around, playing tag and climbing logs…

Does this sound like a scene from a camping trip to you? or a cabin in the woods, perhaps? Little House on the Prairie? Add some snow and you’ve got a lovely Christmas card image. 

But no, this is the scene at Setagaya Park, a large play space in Setagaya, which is a ward located a few miles from our home. And yes, they have open flames for about four campfires, carpentry tools for children to use freely, slides to climb with no railings at the top, shared balance bikes for the little ones, and a miniature train that will take you on a loop around a portion of the park.

What is up with this place?!

That’s what I kept thinking as I made sure my daughter didn’t venture too close to the flames, and kept an eye on my son as he and a friend tried fervently to saw a two-by-four in half with what I hoped was a relatively dull saw. 

Some families were cooking their lunch on the fires.

Meanwhile, kids raced up the wide slides behind me, which appeared to be made from a couple of large sheets of plywood, sanded down and painted. The kids pulled each other up and then flounced around at the top – all of them together! Please no one fall! I thought to myself.  Emmy could climb up a smaller version of this slide, and when she did she found a little carved-out cubby at the top, perfect for her to climb into – perfect for her to go missing in! 

The idea, I heard, is for children to take responsibility for themselves in a park like this. There were a couple of park staff working around the fire areas, but otherwise there was no lifeguard-type person making sure no one lost a finger with the saws or pounded their thumb instead of a nail. So, yes, I guess that leaves the children in charge. What an idea!

Setagaya Park is located just around the corner from Showa Women’s University, which is where Will’s rugby sessions take place. The team party was at this park after the last training session before the new year. The Shibuya International Rugby Club has provided a welcome opportunity for Will to try a new sport and make friends outside of school. We heard about it from a friend at school, and although we were not very familiar with the game, we were pleased Will wanted to try it. The coaches are very enthusiastic, the practices are skill-based but not overly structured or demanding. Everyone is there to have fun and learn. They are learning the skills of the game, but also, like any team sport, they are gaining life skills such as confidence, teamwork and cooperation. These are mainstays that our son needs and the team’s approach is a steady blend of competition and sportsmanship. 

Letting the kids run around together was a great way to end the 2018 rugby season. It was fun to see them experiment, help each other and play in new ways. Though I wanted to hover over the more risky play areas, I tried to let the play happen, trusting that children must rarely get injured at Setagaya Park or this area would not exist. (There are other parks in Japan that offer this type of play, but generally, the open flames and sharp tools are not typical for Tokyo play spaces.) 

At the end of the team’s pizza party, Will and his buddy Andrew begged us to try out the train, so they took a ride with their little sisters. And then the boys begged us to let them check out the go-carts or the skateboard area, but we were ready to get out of the chilly wind, so we skipped those parts. In the summer, there is a swimming pool, too. 

Autumn in Tokyo has gotten chilly on us, reminding me of hot cider and wet leaves on the sidewalk. But the city manages to squeeze in an oasis here and there. Setagaya Park was fun for the whole family, the pizza was good, and the kids were worn out. A successful Sunday for sure!

**Stoppingtime Blog may be on a short hiatus for the Christmas holidays, when we return to the U.S. for some much-needed celebrations with family and friends. I’ll be back in 2019! Happy Holidays to all!**

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Kodomo no kuni: all day fun!

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When you promise your kids a day of fun with rides to go on, cows to feed and playgrounds to explore, you’d better deliver. Fortunately, our Saturday at Kodomo no kuni was filled with things to do. The diversions created for children here in Japan never cease to delight. It’s like there are so many people here – many of them families with young children – that play spaces have been created to provide endless activities. I have previously written about the parks we have visited, each with their own unique features. Kodomo no kuni is not just a park; at approximately 240 acres, it’s more like a land of amusements. 

After paying the nominal admissions fee and then walking through the gates at this Children’s Land, the first thing we saw was a giant wreath, stretching from the ground all the way up to a bridge about 50 feet above it. Gazing at it, I thought for a moment about a family Christmas card picture, and saw other families waiting in line for their photo op. And then I realized that if you wanted the entire wreath to be visible in the photograph, you’d barely see the faces of the people standing in front of it. We skipped it and headed off to the rides. 

The first ride – and possibly the best one, in my opinion – was the pedal roller coaster. It’s a bit bigger than your average hometown carnival kiddie roller coaster, but nowhere near as large as the ones at the huge amusement parks. You and a buddy/sibling/parent step into your car, sit down and buckle in. And then, when the train is ready, you begin pedaling to get up the first hill. Since I was riding with our two-year-old next to me, I had to do all the work. My legs were burning by the time we got up that hill! (I later realized that the cars are hooked together, so you probably don’t have to pedal that hard…as long as everyone else is.) And then you cruise down the hill, up another slight incline and around the track, back to the station. Emmy gripped my arm on the downhill but loved it in the end. It’s quite nice that she wasn’t too small for this kind of ride, or any of the others actually. 

The kids later rode the pedal coaster again, just the two of them.

Beneath the pedal coaster, there is a track for cycles of all kinds. Most of them involve pedaling, as one would on a bicycle, but others involve bouncing up and down, or high-stepping your feet to make them go. Some are long so you could fit a passenger in front of the pedaler. Some have two seats so you can ride with a friend. You get a half-hour time slot in this area, so you have to get going. This was not a problem though; these cycles were like nothing we’d seen before! Will kindly took his sister for a couple of rides and then one of us pushed her around the track. Some cycles were easier to control than others, that’s for sure. Once I got stuck on one of the barriers and another time Will lost control and ran into the side. Big smiles all around. 

In the same area, you can’t miss the oversized moving pandas for the children to ride. They play songs while they shuffle along, a bit like a musical Snuffleupagus, I’d say…but don’t forget to steer! Then we went up and tried the amphibious vehicles, which start and end on a driveway, but go through two feet of water as you make your way around the track. Keep pedaling to get the rudder moving!

As I had promised Emmy cows, we headed toward the farm area next. In the space called the Moo Moo Domes, we found two sets of large white humps emerging from the sand. Will immediately removed his shoes and socks and climbed the set of domes meant for older children, while Emmy more tentatively got her bearings on the smaller set. These domes are like a bounce house, really, except there’s no house. It’s just a big hump of air, on which children jump and play. There is background music as well: a Japanese mix of kid songs (I recognized the Mickey Mouse club theme and “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music).

Surrounding the domes is a great field and we saw many families lounging with picnics. Some had even pitched a tent for the day. A good plan, I’d say, as there is so much to do at this place.

Up the hill from the Moo Moo Domes, we found the pony rides and then fed the cows and sheep. As we neared nap time for our little one, we knew we had to squeeze in the giant roller slide before much more time went by. We followed the trail back toward the main gate, stopped for a while at a playground (one of several throughout the park) and then walked a bit further to find the roller slide. 

For those unfamiliar with the Japanese roller slide, it is a slide made of a series of cylindrical tubes that spin as one rides over them. And this one, at 110 meters long (about 360 feet) was the longest we’ve encountered so far. We walked up the hill and waited in line, all four of us, before crawling through a small tunnel that led to the slide’s entrance. Emmy went first, then me, followed by my husband and our son at the rear. Emmy did not want to be assisted as she rode (“No, I don’t want you to come,” she told me, with a glance over her shoulder) but as the two boys behind me kept slamming into me, pushing me toward her, she didn’t have much choice. The slide cruises along, in a couple of loops and then gradually down to the ground. It was fun for all of us.

As the sun was starting to go down, we knew we were just about done at the park. We got Emmy to sleep and let Will play for a while longer, then made our way to the car. 

But this is what is so great about a place like Kodomo no kuni: your day is packed with things kids and adults can enjoy, and when you leave, you know you could go back another time, see and do more and have another splendid family day. We didn’t get to ride the swan boats, for example, or see the hanging bridge, or check out the disc golf course, or try the skating rink/swimming pool. So yes, we will go back. I have a feeling each time would be a whole new experience.

Apartment Living: Our New Reality

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Before moving to Tokyo, the only time I had lived in an apartment was when I studied abroad in Toledo, Spain, in college and lived with a host family. I was there for around four months. I had my own bedroom and bathroom, but I shared the rest of the living space with my host mom and dad and two host sisters, ages 11 and 4. I was gone most weekends, taking advantage of the opportunity to travel as much as I could. In that semester, I didn’t spend much time dwelling on the reality of apartment life.

As a grown woman, with a husband and two children, apartment living is making a much greater impression on me. In the suburbia of southeast Michigan, where I come from, most families seek to buy a house with a yard in a neighborhood where they will park their car each night and hang Christmas lights from the roof. Here, most families do not have the means to afford those luxuries, at least not in the desirable, urban-living locations.

My husband and I looked at several apartments (and a couple of single-family homes) and ended up choosing one that I initially did not like. It was so drab! But it’s close to Will’s school, so it works. Here are some of my observations from these three months of ex-pat apartment living in Tokyo:

Loads of clothes that came in the sea shipment… before we crammed them into our closet and drawers

Downsizing. Last week our sea shipment finally arrived. I had pretty much forgotten what was in it, but it turned out to be mostly clothes and food (yes, lots of cereal and snacks like graham crackers) and toys (Emmy’s play kitchen! She has been so excited). So now our master closet is jammed with clothes and our living space is jammed with toys. Two thoughts run through my head: where did we think we’d put all this stuff? and for goodness’ sake, what all did we end up storing for two years back home? When we return, we will surely find other surprises in the unpacking process. How much of that stuff do we really need?

Just your average Thursday night

Shared spaces. Our living room is our play room is our dining room is our breakfast nook is our pantry is our TV room is the homework spot… Every space is a shared space. The children play in the middle of everything. I would like to say the master bedroom (which happens to be down the one hallway and sort of removed from the rest) is not a play space, but Emmy has taken to snuggling her dolls in our bed and Will has found the closet to be a great spot for creating a fort of suitcases. Most of our time is spent in the living room, which connects to both children’s bedrooms and the kitchen, so we are pretty much always together. There are upsides and downsides to this situation, of course. We are literally closer in physical proximity than we would be in our home in Michigan; it’s easier to keep track of everyone and everything. On the other hand, that leaves little space in which to retreat should one wish to take a moment for herself. 

Service with a smile. In the entrance way to our building, there are two sets of glass doors. One set is automatic, from the outside coming in. To open the next set, you have to use your key, get buzzed in, or have someone open the door for you on the inside. During day time hours, our door woman is the hostess for our apartment building, and she is most helpful. Why should one struggle to retrieve her key from the bottom of her purse? Maho will be there to open the door for you. Did you receive a bill in Japanese that you can’t read? Maho will help you understand it. Do you wish to make a reservation at a restaurant? Maho will call for you and see if there is a table available. Did you forget something upstairs? Maho will keep an eye on your child and your stroller while you run back up to your apartment. Do you have a bag of garbage to take out? Maho will take it from your hands and put it in the trash room for you. She will do these things all day long, greeting each of us, assisting us however she can, and helping it feel like home.

Aside from these major changes in the way we live, the reality of apartment living is full of contrasts. For example, there isn’t as much space, so you just can’t have as much stuff. But then, there isn’t as much space.

It’s both easier and harder to keep the place clean. It only takes ten minutes to vacuum…but the toys bleed into all spaces at all times. 

There’s no yard to play in, which is a bummer… But it means there’s no yard covered in leaves that must be raked or grass that must be cut.

I have no car, so I am forced to walk more and ride my bike. But I am limited because I have no car – not that I can’t get where I want to go, but that I can’t always bring home the things I want to bring home. That means less purchasing of extra, bulky items (although I do miss Target), but it also means going to the store on foot more often – sometimes every day.

This is the life we are living now. It is very very different from what we came from. But I think we feel it’s been good to change it up. We are developing a new outlook on family life and our needs. It’s like we have inserted a chapter we weren’t expecting – one of those chunks of pages with color pictures on it, in the middle of a book, placed there to enhance the story. Though I can’t tell exactly how, I’m sure our time in this apartment will enhance our story and affect the chapters still to come.

Thanksgiving Bowl: 50 Years and Counting

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Thanksgiving has been my favorite holiday for a long time… probably since I began appreciating holidays as a time to be together with loved ones more than a time to get presents. This year, my awareness of being so far from home has been heightened as I have been thinking about missing time with our families on Thanksgiving. Today, from across the world, I want to take a moment, for myself, my brother, my parents, my uncles and aunts, my cousins and our late grandparents, to honor my favorite tradition, the Joseph and Kathryn LaFave Thanksgiving Bowl – a tradition that is celebrating its 50th year. For us LaFaves and our kin, this football game is a real celebration of our family. 

The Thanksgiving Bowl began when my dad, the second of five boys, was 17 and his youngest brother was 7. My mom played in that game too, an unabashed tomboy who was already well-in with the LaFave crew. They played in the street in front of their house, all five of the boys plus my mom, along with some college friends and a neighbor.

Since that first game, there have been variations over the years, such as a Best Dressed award in the mid-1970’s, film editing and commentary (complete with commercials, slow motion and flashbacks: Thanksgiving Bowl 20), rules for kids who wanted to play but whom no one wanted to step on (minimum age: 7), game clock changes due to freezing temps or a snow-covered field, etc.

Every year my family and I miss the majority of the Thanksgiving Day parades on TV because we have to get to the field. We layer up, depending on how cold it is, throw the cleats and an extra sweatshirt in the car and head out. We gather at the field in clumps, catching up on each other’s lives as we walk from the car together. Some of us jog to warm up, others play catch, some of us just hug and chat, stretching distractedly. My uncle has pre-determined teams, we put on mesh jerseys to show which team we’re on, and it’s time for the coin toss followed by the ceremonial kick-off. Years ago, my grandfather, in his sheepskin coat and Irish golf hat, would begin the game by lining up with the players and kicking the ball down the field. Since his passing, my brother, the oldest grandchild and who happens to be named after my grandfather, performs this kick-off to get us going.

Photo credit: Kim LaFave

It’s two-hand touch. One complete pass for a first down. Probably some other rules that I don’t remember year to year. Some years you have to have a kid involved in order to get a first down. This year, you have to have one of the original 1968 players involved to get a first down; four of them will be present at this year’s game. I am sorry to miss it. 

It’s not always a nice game, by the way. It’s important everyone knows how much time is left, for one thing; don’t distract the time keeper. In the height of competition, tension may rise between siblings, or between fathers and sons. People do get stepped on now and then: a broken finger here, a bruised knee there. We don’t always go easy on each other. Tempers flare. Those not involved in a squabble chuckle on the sidelines. But it all works out in the end. It’s family. It’s predictable like that.

After the game, we troupe over to my aunt and uncle’s house, where we peel off a layer or two, grab a pop and some chips, watch the Lions, hang out for a while. Everyone looks disheveled – hair out of place, grass stains on knees, tattered shirts that get worn once a year just for this game – but no one cares of course. We vote for the MVP, and that person gets his or her name put on the golden MVP ball, which shows the MVP from each of the last 50 years. It’s pretty cool. (And yes, my name is on it at least once.)

Photo credit: Kim LaFave

We go our separate ways not long after that. Everyone has to get cleaned up for dinner with the other side of their family. Another Thanksgiving Bowl in the books. A tradition started in the street 50 years ago. A game that is sometimes contentious, sometimes freezing cold, and sometimes the only time of the year when we share real smiles and laughs, when we call each other teammates.

Photo credit: Kim LaFave

As I spend my Thanksgiving on my couch in Tokyo, watching videos to learn how to make a pumpkin pie for our small gathering on Saturday, I think of each person who has made our Thanksgiving Bowl last for 50 years, and for them and for our tradition I am grateful. I am grateful for my family, my friends near and far, and all the traditions we share. Before we march toward Christmas, I am grateful for this moment to celebrate those who came before us and all that is ahead of us. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

Motherhood in Tokyo: Part 2 – 5:00 Bells

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The last time I wrote about motherhood in Tokyo, I told the unfortunate story of tumbling from my new electric bike with my toddler in the bike seat behind me. (In case you’re wondering, we have not fallen since then, but Emmy continues to remind me that “we do not fall again.”) This time, as I think about motherhood and how this whole change is going for us, I think mainly of my two kiddos.

There is so much to adapt to when you make a move like we have. For our two-year-old, the greatest change is in her daily activities. Last year, she came to school with me and her brother, we dropped her off in her one-year-old classroom in the Early Childhood Program (for whose curriculum and nurturing I will always be grateful), picked her up at the end of the school day, and went home to play and have dinner together as a family.

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Emmy at Yoyogi Park

Here in Tokyo, Emmy and I are together from the moment she awakens until she goes to bed at night. Sometimes we are with other children, but mostly she is my buddy for all the daily tasks. Fortunately, and I hope I’m not jinxing myself here, she’s a pretty cheery, expressive, loving and amusing kid to hang with all day. I am grateful for the extra hugs, laughs and mom-daughter moments I get to have now that I’m not working during the day.

The real work, as I’ve learned, comes after school. Emmy and I pick up Will at the end of his day and often traipse over to the park to release some energy and get some fresh air before heading home for the evening. At 5:00, the city tests its emergency sound system with a loud, musical series of notes that can be heard wherever you are. For me, those “5:00 bells,” as we call them, signify the beginning of the hardest part of my day.

Between 5:00 and 7:00 (and for the record, I know the following situation is not unique to me or to living in Tokyo, I’m just putting it out there for all you parents who can relate to the evening strain), the following tasks – listed in no particular order – must be accomplished by or with my second grader:

  1. Chill time. Maybe a snack. Some TV watching. A moment to relax between the school day and the evening responsibilities.
  2. Japanese homework, which lately involves practicing writing the characters of Hiragana
  3. Math practice, which means I come up with a short set of problems for Will to complete
  4. Reading together for 20 minutes, during which we hope Emmy gets on board so she is not the biggest distraction in the universe
  5. Getting dinner ready and on the table – a process that can be more complicated when my Japanese kitchen doesn’t perform adequately
  6. Play time – Let’s not forget this wonderful part of being a kid! Using your imagination, building something new, letting your mind wander… etc.
  7. Keeping the peace: allowing the children to play and exist together without driving each other (and me) up the wall.

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Our dining table in the middle of that 5:00-7:00 time period. Yes, this is also where we eat dinner. Don’t miss the taiko sticks and 400-piece cereal puzzle.

In the last couple of weeks, I have learned that the ups and downs of these seven tasks can make or break the evening. Homework is pretty new for us. The tasks assigned to Will are not super challenging or time consuming. But for a kid who has just been IMG_0165through the biggest change of his life (probably bigger than the birth of his sister, I’d say), the added stress of doing more school work after school is not welcome.

I have to say, I was not really prepared to face homework as a parent. I really hadn’t given it much thought. I kept thinking (naively, I suppose) that it wasn’t time yet. So when we arrived here and learned there would be reading and Japanese homework every night, I told myself and my son that the homework, which did not seem to require a huge amount of time, would be completed before dinner. Then we could move on with our evening in a stress-free fashion: get it out of the way, take care of business and be free of it.

I was also not prepared for the homework resistance. I don’t think Will was ready for homework any more than I was – how could he be? He’s only 7! He doesn’t like that it exists. He doesn’t like that it takes up his free time. And he doesn’t like that sometimes those homework moments, when it’s not as easy as you thought it would be, are like a magnifying glass for how his life is so different now.

It’s not easy to be uprooted from everything you know and love and move across the world, to a place where a lot of your peers are fluent in Japanese and English (and other languages for some of them), where you don’t have a backyard in which to run out and play, where you have less time with your dad during the week, where your sister gets to hang with your mom all day long, and where your worldview and self-image are influx.

So I’ve realized that it’s my job, between 5:00 and 7:00 each night, to reinforce the gifts and strengths of my son, to take a deep breath when he is frustrated, and to help him find the words to explain how he really feels about all this.

That might mean shifting dinner time. It might mean coming home from the park a little earlier in order to get some of those 7 tasks done before exhaustion hits. It might mean getting off his case a little. It might mean teaching him to take a deep breath as well.

As I said in my last post, this adventure is all about learning as we go. Lately, more than anything else, I find I am learning a great deal about my son and about myself. In a way, I suppose that’s the most important thing to learn in the end.

When you don’t speak the language

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I tend to think of myself as someone who has a pretty good ear for language and can pick it up fairly quickly. After all, I taught language arts for ten years, I am still fairly proficient in Spanish (15 years after studying abroad), I remember some French from grade school, and I even know a bit of sign language. Japanese is a different ball game, though. It’s simple and complex at the same time. There are not as many sounds, but there are also three language systems (Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana) combined into one umbrella language. Over the summer, I spent a number of hours with a Japanese instructor who helped me learn the very basics, such as greetings and numbers. Since I have been here, I have acquired a handful of useful expressions, like “excuse me,” “please,” “thank you very much,” and “good morning.” Due to the international community in which we live in Tokyo, some days go by when I find I have no need to speak Japanese; the people with whom I’m interacting speak English. But there are absolutely other times when I think to myself, “Man, I wish I knew what they were saying.” Here’s a glimpse into some of those times:

Ordering food

As an expat family with two kids, we typically choose restaurants where there is a menu available in English. If the server does not speak much English, it usually works to point and hold up fingers for how many we’d like of any given item. However, I have found that going to a coffee shop can involve questions that I’m not prepared to answer. I’ll order a cafe latte to go, for example, and the cashier will nod as if she understands my order, but her nod is followed by a string of Japanese words that sound like a question. I scrunch my forehead and give her a puzzled expression, to which she usually will just chuckle and then take my credit card. What did she want to know? Was it, do you want a receipt? Do you want extra sweetener? Would you like a muffin with that? Where did you get your sweater? I am in the dark. A moment later, she will kindly motion me toward the other end of the counter, where I can pick up my beverage and sheepishly be on my way.

Another example of this language barrier occurred last week when some friends took me and Emmy to a cafe on the fifth floor of the library. We had just completed a mom-and-toddler yoga session, and we walked up the hill to the library where we could enjoy lunch with a nice view. Great for the moms and the kids! The ordering system in this

place is automated; similar to a vending machine, you put money in, select the number of the item you want, and then get a ticket with your order number on it. You turn in your ticket at the counter, the smiling cooks prepare the food, call your number, and you pick it up. The trouble with this scenario is there is no translation for the food items, and only two of them are pictured near the machine. Oy.

Fortunately I was with two Japanese women and one American woman who could read the characters well enough to manage. They were a big help, obviously. I don’t think I would have been able to purchase a satisfactory lunch for me and my daughter without their guidance. Also, when the food was ready, I was listening closely to hear my number (12: ju-ni) – I figured I could at least do that much. But the “ju-ni” was mixed into a jumble of other Japanese words so I nearly missed it! My friend indicated that they had called 12 so I went to get my tray. She told me that, in addition to the number, they also say the order itself as well as something that loosely translates to “come get your food.” Sheesh. So much for figuring it out on my own!

Taking a Taxi

For our first weeks here, we did not take taxis because we had not received our resident cards yet, so we had no way to tell the driver where to take us to get home. One cannot assume that any taxi driver speaks English, so one must be prepared to show or tell the driver a phone number to plug into his GPS. I rarely take a taxi anyway, but when I do, I just show them my residence card and thank them profusely.

As it turns out, our apartment building is on a one-way street, and the GPS systems may take you to the wrong spot (like the backside of the building) or on an extra long route to get to the correct entrance to the street. Try explaining this to a driver who has made a wrong turn trying to get us home! When this has happened, we have been able to speak up (excuse me! Sumimasen!) and then point in the right direction. Luckily, the drivers, dressed in suits with white gloves on, are usually friendly and open to assistance as needed.

Instructions

Last week I took Emmy to one of the grocery stores in town that I especially like. They have good produce and meat, but also snack items, a variety of breads and useful toiletries. Plus, it’s not far from one of our favorite parks. As I was checking out, the cashier asked me something that I realized had to do with a rewards card. I shook my head to say no, I didn’t have one. She held one up to me, which I took, and then she gave me an envelope to go with it. In a combination of heavily-accented English and Japanese, she tried to tell me what to do with this envelope and the information inside of it. I nodded and smiled, then walked away thinking I had no idea what she just said.

Granted, I don’t think it’s too hard to figure out what she meant in this case. You probably just fill out a form and send the envelope back so they can register the card. It’s fine. I can do that. It’s just not as simple as it would be if I understood what she said in the first place.

The Unknown

Living here, I have the impression that there are elements of the Japanese way of life that one would know and understand if one grew up here. But as a newcomer who does not speak the language, there are many times when I wonder if I am inadvertently breaking the rules. Here are some examples:

  • Is it okay to bring my coffee cup or water bottle into this children’s play area?

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    Emmy at a nearby indoor play area, where you must remove your shoes and you may not bring your coffee cup.

  • Am I supposed to take my shoes off or is it ok to leave them on? (In homes and indoor children’s spaces, it’s common to remove your shoes.)
  • Is my son the only one who rides his scooter through the park? Were we supposed to park it somewhere and just walk through the play areas?
  • Is my daughter allowed to eat her snack while walking through this store? Or is that frowned upon?
  • How bad is it to take my stroller on the escalator, especially the ones leading to and from the subway?  (I’m hoping not too bad, as it is often impossible to find an elevator.)

For most of these, I tell myself that the answer is “don’t worry about it.” But because the culture seems quite introverted, it’s hard to gauge whether people are looking disdainfully at us as ignorant Americans or if their eyes are downcast because that’s just their habit.

It’s hard to imagine the flip side of this cultural quandary. What unspoken rules exist in American society that newcomers may not understand?

The good news is that most Japanese people are willing to help out when a stranger seems lost or confused. A woman at a creperie last week gently indicated we should put money in the machine first and then place our order. I’ve had security guards help me carry my stroller down the stairs to the subway when no elevator was in sight. The cashiers at the coffee shop don’t seem to mind if you don’t quite understand them. And we also have a door woman who can help us translate forms or mailings.

So, will I try to learn more Japanese to make these scenarios easier? As we do not plan to be here forever, I think I will focus on the words I need to get through these types of interactions. I could take an English-speaking Japanese friend with me so she can translate and help me know what is being asked of me. However, there’s always the issue that if you begin with the little Japanese you know, you may get a response that you don’t understand.

Learning as we go. That’s what this is all about.

Okinawa: going to the water

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Since we began thinking about and imagining our life in Japan, we thought about what other parts of the world we’d like to see while we’re here. Before then, Asia had never really been on my list; instead, it included places like Greece, Ireland, Italy and going back to Spain. Naturally, I’ve had to put that list on hold and begin making a new list. There are so many places to go within the nation of Japan itself, as well as other intriguing places that are a manageable plane ride away.

Last week we ventured to Okinawa, an island off the southern tip of mainland Japan. It’s remembered for the Battle of Okinawa in World War II, in which thousands of citizens and soldiers perished. It’s known today for its tropical climate and beaches, and Americans may know it as the location of several U.S. military bases.

For me, vacation means relaxing near a body of water of some kind. Spending my childhood summers on northern Michigan’s lakes, I have been spoiled with the sense of renewal and refreshment that can come from a couple of days on the water. Okinawa was the perfect location for us to enjoy the ocean, and those times were my favorite parts of our trip. We also visited the aquarium and the Okinawa World theme park, which provided extraordinary sites too, but the times on the ocean were the best for me and for us as a family.

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On the two middle days of our trip, the conditions were idyllic on the water. We woke to a blue-green sea rippling along in front of us, and we spent our mornings working on sand castles at the shore. The beach in Okinawa made the sand castles tricky, though. A mix of sand and crushed shells, it was hard to find the right consistency to actually make a sand castle stand. IMG_9726Some areas of the beach were simply too shell-y, others were too wet, and others too dry, of course. Will even decided to dig a big hole instead of making castles, which is just as fun anyway. Emmy and I looked for special shells; she found a “bacon” one and I found some sea glass and other shells with pink, purple or blue highlights. (These will surely be inspirations for future home decorating endeavors…Well, maybe not the bacon one…)

And then, after lunch, the tide went out and we were able to explore the rocks next to the beach. Picking our way carefully over the moss-covered coral, tightly gripping the hand of one of our two kiddos, we could see sea cucumber and little striped fish beneath the surface, and crabs creeping along the rocks next to us. Newts darted away from our toes, bright blue fish cowered in the shadows of the rocks. The ocean surrounded us there, spreading out as far as we could see. It was a fascinating spot, like our own little aquarium at our fingertips.

Emmy napped on the beach in the afternoons, bless her, and the rest of us got a chance to recharge with the water lapping gently on the shore. Swimming with Will is a blast, too, because he is so delighted to be out there in the water. He wants to be tossed and slung around; he laughs and shrieks to his heart’s content. So much joy.

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Waiting to board our flight back to Tokyo, we happened to sit near a couple of Marines, older gentlemen here to train and teach, I presume, who were headed back home to the States. But they had been all over – the perfect brains to pick for what locales we shouldn’t miss during our time here. They talked about Manila, Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam and Guam.

Some time into our discussion, the older one said, “Wherever you go, just get to the water.” The big city is one thing of course, and some cities are truly remarkable (like Tokyo itself, I’d say), but he seemed to think the place to be is on the water, or near it. So in our future travels, we will have to keep that in mind: just get to the water. What other reefs and beaches and tide pools could we see and explore? Could we learn to surf? or catch our own dinner out at sea? To me, those are the endless possibilities that make this adventure remarkable and exciting.

Okinawa was a good start. Looking ahead, we will indeed keep going to the water. IMG_9854